L-R: Anne Gottlieb and Jeremiah Kissel
All photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.
New Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jim Petosa, chose Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced “Broken Glass” to open the 2015-2016 season. “The resounding authenticity of playwright Arthur Miller’s voice has left an indelible legacy on the American stage,” Petosa said. “We are proud to bring this Boston are premiere to our stage during the nationwide celebration of his 100th birthday,”
“Identity” is the theme of this year’s season, and “Broken Glass” certainly fits the bill.
Written in 1994, Miller wrote this play 40-50 years after he had penned his best known and greatest plays (the American classics “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge”). During these later years, Miller began exploring his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew. His search resounds loud and clear in “Broken Glass.”
The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), one of the events in the run-up to World War II, in which windows in Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The title may also refer to the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings.
Sylvia Gellburg (played with clarity and wit by Anne Gottlieb) is obsessed with the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe and distraught by the fact that those around her can’t see the writing on the wall. She pores over the newspaper, returning again and again to the humiliation of a photo of two elderly bearded Jews forced to scour the sidewalk with toothbrushes. She fears that such brutality will somehow reach Brooklyn.
Her feelings of helplessness so overwhelm her that she suffers the actual physical helplessness of paralysis. “Somebody has to do something, or they will murder us all,” she wails.
Her gloomy, hot-blooded husband, mortgage banker Phillip (played with staccato nervous energy by the stellar and popular Jeremiah Kissel) insists she see their physician and friend, Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). After running a series of tests and referring Sylvia to a specialist, he concludes that Sylvia’s ailment appears to be psychosomatic. He likens her condition to soldiers who are so frightened they suffer shell shock.
Unlike Sylvia, Phillip is not at peace with his identity. He spends as much time trying to assimilate and shed his Jewish identity as he does bristling at imagined anti-Semitic remarks, caught in that no man’s land of identifying as a Jew and wanting to be anything else. Nonetheless, he isn’t so sure that Sylvia’s reaction to the horrors of Germany isn’t spot-on.
“What if Sylvia is the only one who is awake and her reaction makes sense and if the rest of us were aware of what she is, we’d be paralyzed too?” he asks Dr. Hyman. The doctor, who is Jewish but married to the bubbly non-Jewish Margaret (Eve Passeltiner), is convinced that all the political turmoil will pass. In his estimation, Sylvia’s problem boils down to the fact that she is desperate to be loved.
Against this backdrop of unhappiness, fear and repression, the Gellburg’s marital disintegration soon takes center stage as Sylvia and Phillip verbally spar with the intimate accuracy of two people well versed in each other’s Achilles’ heels. Sylvia, who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood and Manhattan, resents and regrets ever leaving Brooklyn. “I can’t seem to find myself in my life,” she says. Phillip echoes her disappointment: “I always thought I would have time to get to the bottom of me,” he says. These are two strangers in the strange land of their marriage.
While the cast is superb and the set inventive and effective, the play’s strident tone and length (two-and-a-half hours) eventually wears down even the most ardent theatergoer. “Broken Glass” is a tough slog. Unlike Willy Loman and the characters in Miller’s deservedly more famous plays, these characters are two-dimensional and that two-dimensionality keeps us at arm’s length, sadly making it impossible for us to feel the compassion they so crave.
Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.